Back on the Burger-Wagon

CowHorseCow. Photo Credit: By InSapphoWeTrust I know, I know.  I said, ‘been there, done that’.  So, sorry to return to the issue, but I think there is another symbiologically relevant point to be brought forth from this continuing horsemeat malarky, which I didn’t really look at last time.  But hey (geddit?), I’ve had a week off and need something to get my teeth into.  Sorry, I’ll stop with the puns.

In my last post about horse-meat, I concentrated on the cultural relationship people have with horses in this country and considered why one would be disgusted at the idea of eating horse.  I also said this (so you don’t have to go back and read it again):

“As someone who spends far too long staring at food labels in supermarkets (before deciding just to have a veggie curry because it’s less stressful), I wasn’t particularly shocked to hear that not everything that goes into a Tesco Value Beefburger could be considered ‘beef’.  It says on the packet that beef only constitutes 66% of the actual burger;  I know, the rest is water, wheat flour and ‘beef fat’, but still, there’s no detail of which country it comes from or what part of the cow you’re eating; or even if ‘beef’ and ‘cow’ are necessarily synonyms.”

Last time, the labelling issue – whilst acknowledged – was an aside to a wider point about cultural taboos.  This time, I want to think about why it is such a problem that people may have been ‘misinformed’ into eating horse, especially as that has now become the crux of the issue.

I also want to acknowledge this article: Horse meat – the hardest thing to digest is that it’s your fault. which bravely and eloquently (if rather angrily) expresses a thought that presumably many of us have been thinking: that ultimately, you are responsible for what you consume.  I don’t mean this to be a personal attack on consumers, though; it’s a call to consider, from a less emotive position, how we’ve reached a point at which we are unable to identify the animal we are eating, let alone where it came from or how it lived.

Hunters, Herders & Hamburgers - Richard BullietRichard Bulliet, in his book Hunters, herders and hamburgers – a strangely appropriate title – coined the term ‘post-domestic society’ to refer to those communities that have become completely removed from the realities of animal slaughter.  To put this in perspective, the ‘hunters’ here are hunter-gatherer societies. Domestic societies  – the ‘herders’, i.e. pastoralist or agricultural cultures, are observed to become acclimatised to animal death because they live closely alongside the animals they raise, keep and consume and they witness – often from an early age – the process of animal death and preparation for consumption.

Bulliet noted that, Lebanon being a largely ‘domestic’ society, 90% of students at the American University of Beirut had witnessed animal slaughter compared with less than 20% at New York’s Columbia University.  I have never seen an animal slaughtered, though I am more familiar with the processing side, not least because I come from a town that has an old-school butcher’s shop where the carcasses are hung up in the windows.  It never really bothered me – perhaps because it’s always been there – and now I’m strangely proud of it, because I believe that if you are to eat animals, you should understand fully what that implies. Butcher's Shop Window. Photo Credit: Joadl

Back to the point, though; what kind of strange relationship is this that so many humans now have with domestic species, that we can go our whole lives eating meat without ever having to kill anything?  Well; we trade meat for money, something that I can be fairly confident in saying happens nowhere else in the natural world.  There are two things at play in the horsemeat scandal, I think.  Firstly, there is a post-domestic attitude that leads people not to disregard, necessarily, but to forget or simply not even consider the origin of their meat.  Post-domestic citizens are shielded from the realities of meat eating – the blood and guts, as it were, hardly come into play when burgers are chosen from supermarket freezers.  We are separated, too, from those interspecies interactions that are associated with the end result of consumption – the birth, the feeding, the herding, the death.  So there is no interaction at all and the animal – whatever it may be – is lost sight of. This is where factor two comes into play; money.

Meat packages in a supermarket. Photo: MattesIt is too easy to forget, with 99p McDonald’s meals, that ‘meat’, i.e. animals, are expensive to raise (and rightly so); they require a whole lifetime, however comparatively short, of feeding, sheltering and healthcare, especially (and crucially, for me) if that life is to be one worth living.  The pressure is on, though, to drive prices down, to be competitive.  In the end, is it really surprising that the bottom end of the price range becomes something that you may not consider appropriate meat?  Offal, or maybe horse?

What has this to do with symbiology?  Well, I’m really making a reverse point.  What’s gone on here is not an association between species, an interaction between organisms, but a great gaping hole where that interaction, for better or worse, once sat.  I’m not sure I would like to live in a domestic society because they are tough and gory, but that being said, living in a post-domestic society is a little like living in space.  Connections to reality – to the way the world is when there are no supermarkets and processing plants and cleverly-hidden slaughterhouses – are getting thinner and fainter.  Connections to other animals –  even if they ultimately end in death – are growing weaker.  I sometimes feel like we are drifting away from the rest of the world, even as we try to understand it better.

So, my attention was drawn to this article the other day, which describes the attempts of a primary school to educate children on the entire process of rearing meat; they are to raise pigs and then send them to the butcher (though I imagine they won’t see the actual slaughter – might be a bit much too soon).  I am not sure that I’m on board with teaching children how to advertise and sell meat, as that seems to hark back to the competitive pricing issue again and I’m not sure that’s what I’d focus on, but I can see the value in children being taught to understand exactly what their meat-eating involves.  It gives them the opportunity to be fully informed when they choose their future relationship with meat.  A good friend of mine became vegetarian after learning, as a child, what happened to the pigs she’d come to regard as friends.  Fair enough, and that might happen to some of these kids too. Sow with piglet. Photo Credit: Scott Bauer

Equally, the children might be unfazed and simply continue to eat pigs with aplomb (unless they’re Islamic or Jewish; either its not a very religiously diverse school or the teacher hasn’t thought this through). As far as I’m concerned, in essentials that’s OK too.  The key point is, they will understand the input and resources required to raise animals; the true cost of their consumption. They will (hopefully, and importantly for me) recognise the value of the life of their pigs, see that those lives means something, even if they are eaten at the end of it.  They will have an interaction and they will be symbiotes in the real world, even if only for a little while.  They may be the ones who end this fantasy of consequence-free consumption.

The Rescuers – the pitfalls and potential of interspecies altruism

Since I published my blog about morality, I’ve been noticing lots of instances of humans demonstrating our extensive capacity for altruism (re-cap: acts that help others without any significant gain to ourselves).  Particularly, me being me, I’ve noticed how far we extend our altruism – far outside of our own social group, to include strangers, other animals and even ‘concepts’, such as a real concern for ‘nature’ as a whole.Brazilian Beachgoers Rescuing Stranded Dolphins

I’ve also noticed the conflict that this expansion of our empathy seems to initiate.  Not only does it create novel moral dilemmas for us when we project our own moral values onto other species (as discussed in my blog about cats as serial killers), it also produces dilemmas as to the reasonable limits of our altruism.  Without wanting to harp on about the cat issue again, I must highlight this quote from the extensive press relating to it:

“It is not humane treatment of animals to place a killing machine in their midst. Nor is it humane treatment of animals to allow one to live, with the knowledge that others will die painful deaths because of that act.” – Karin Kline, Los Angeles Times

Erm… I have an issue with the second sentence of that statement.  Allow me to jump off my fence and dust the sawdust of my backside for a moment while I point out that, by that logic, we should not be allowing any predators to live, at all, ever.  Such a level of intervention into the lives of others, I think most people would agree, would be a step too far and would likely have disastrous results for the functioning of our planet.

So, although I think most would agree that we can’t reasonably attempt to intervene in every violent and non-altruistic interaction that takes place, we are still left with the question: when is it OK to intervene?

The Crow and I have been watching the BBC’s ‘Africa’ for the past few weeks and in the most recent episode – regarding the future of the continent – a number of these issues were discussed.   Filmmakers and local conservationists watched a baby elephant die of starvation.  They did not intervene.  On another occasion, however, an adult female was stuck in mud unable to free herself; the team pulled her free using heavy machinery.  The explanation was that, during the drought, the team felt that there was nothing they could realistically do for the infant.  There was no food, no water and the calf was too weak to walk.  It was agreed that with so little chance of a positive outcome, it was not worth causing the mother the stress of their intervention; in such a situation the mother is not to know that humans are trying to help.  Their experience of humans may not always have been positive and the first part of a different video below – in which humans did intervene to save an elephant calf stuck in a well – shows how distressing such well intentioned actions can be (don’t worry – on this occasion it has a happy ending):

I don’t know of researchers, conservationists or filmmakers ever intervening in situations where an animal is threatened by a predator – some of the camera operators on ‘Africa’ said how emotionally difficult it had been to watch hundreds of young turtles snatched by crows and eagles.  Here, though, another of our most developed abilities – reasoned thought – often wins out over the initial empathic response.  Most people recognise that life functions on death and consumption, even if (like my mum) you’d rather not watch it happen.

The question of human intervention, then, is normally restricted to events that could be classified as ‘natural spite’ (such as elephants trapped in mud and beached whales) or situations caused by anthropogenic activity (such as dolphins trapped in fishing lines and birds coated in mystery substances probably of human origin).

Photo: Brendan McDermid/ReutersThe big dilemmas arise when we just don’t know what’s happened, or what is the best course of action.  Last week, in New York, a lone dolphin was discovered in the Gowanus Canal.  David Kirby of the Huffington Post has written a really thoughtful article considering both sides of the story, which is worth reading in full.  In short, though, the official advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was to leave the dolphin alone until high tide to give him the chance to ‘rescue’ hisself.  Sadly, he didn’t survive that long.  Although there were many concerned onlookers, restricted access made it very difficult for anyone to reach the stranded dolphin and, even if they had, there was nowhere nearby to take him.  The general desire to help, though, was apparently evident  – the photo I’ve yoinked here (all credit to Brendan McDermid/Reuters) shows a man climbing over the barriers in an attempt to offer the dolphin some comfort.

Although we may be conflicted, I am heartened by the length and breadth of our compassion and altruism towards others, both within and across species.  It makes me hopeful that, by employing both this natural generosity and the aforementioned reason, we’re not entirely doomed to failure as a species and as (self-appointed) stewards of this planet.  Our emotions and reason mean that as well as acting selfishly, which heaven knows we’re also very good at, we also want to help – and for many of us, this extends to a desire to help not just our friends and family but other animals, plants, entire ecosystems or even the whole planet!  So, for me our capacity for altruism is one of the most fortunate of evolution’s branches: imagine what things might be like if we lacked it.

It also seems that this adaptation is not just a one-off.  Evolution is full of patterns and parallel solutions to common problems (I like to thing of parallel evolution as the theory of ‘if it ain’t broke..’)  As I discussed in ‘Moral(animal)ity‘, there is a growing body of data regarding other social animals exhibiting altruism and the foundations of moral systems.  It is hardly surprising, then, that some of the most ‘socially intelligent’ of these animals have also been recorded to generalise their altruistic behaviour to other species, including humans.  It’s the usual suspects – elephants, cetaceans, great apes – with a couple of less-obvious inputs, for example, from pigs and parrots (again, though, both highly social species).

Dolphins, in particular, have been observed on multiple occasions helping both humans and other cetaceans out of sticky situations, suggesting that they either have a particularly strong capacity for altruistic action or that people watch them a lot.  Could be a little from column A, a little from column B…  I’ve put some links to examples below.  Many of these accounts are anecdotal, but they have considerable potential for further study and – as Marc Bekoff says – the plural of anecdote is data.Cookie.  Photo: Wales News Service

Finally, a touching (and local to the Battcave) example of true animal nonhuman altruism, whether intended as such or not; it was reported today that Cookie the Cockatiel woke his owner in the middle of a house fire by repeatedly dive-bombing him, saving the boy’s life.  Tragically, Cookie did not make it out of the fire and has therefore become an ultimate altruist, by giving his life to save another’s.

Aubrey Manning – Animal Magic: Why Species Give Each Other a Helping Hand  /  Dolphins Save Surfer from Becoming Shark Bait  /  Beluga Whale ‘Saves’ Diver  /

(This one is interesting, because I’m not sure whether or not the gorilla intended to save the duckling or was just really interested in it; what do you think?)

Breaking News: Cats are Carnivores

The human-cat relationship appears to have hit a rough patch. Photo Credit: Viriditas

Recent research estimates that free-ranging  cats in the US kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals each year.  A quick Google News search of the term ‘killer cats’ brought back thousands of results, with headlines like, “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think“.  I have to admit, my first reaction was surprise. Not, initially, at the numbers of animals killed, but that this is apparently big news.  I think my favourite quote (from the same article) is this one:

“For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.”  – Natalie Angier, New York Times

That is the voice of someone who spends a lot of time on the internet and not much time with cats.  Personally, I’m fairly convinced that the domestic cat’s spread and success across the modern world is not borne of their musical talents.  In fact, I would say that their ability to catch and kill a large amount of small, furry creatures has more than a fair bit to do with it.

Apologies for the flippancy; it does seem that the numbers provided by this study are significant, if rather broad (there is a lot of difference between the quoted ranges of 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals).  What struck me about the situation, though, was the irony in the idea that the very feature of cats that may have accelerated their domestication – and consequently their success – is now (in some circles) a reviled and unwanted characteristic.

So how did we get here?  Well, as with dogs, the prevalent theory is that cats were domesticated by assimilation.  They are thought to have first began an association with humans in the near east about 8,500 years ago, possibly drawn to human settlements by the resident populations of commensals – rats, mice etc. – therein.

Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat.  Photo Credit: Larazoni As is well documented, cats enjoyed significant success in ancient Egypt where they had a variety of mostly positive religious associations; as goddesses (the female cats’ obvious promiscuity may have resulted in their being linked with fertility), as incarnations of the sun god Ra (who was believed to do battle on a nightly basis with the serpent of darkness, as cats would have been observed killing snakes) and as unearthly beings in their own right, perhaps due to the fascinating way in which their eyes react to light.

Their elusive and independent qualities, however, have also led cats to be vilified by humans over the course of our unorthodox symbiosis.  In Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries, under the scrutiny of Christianity, cats were associated with heretical sects (who were thought to worship the Devil in feline form) and, later, labelled as the demon familiars of witches; their prevalence as a Hallowe’en costume continues to this day.  Even in the 19th century cats’ reluctance to submit to human will – unlike dogs – was seen as malicious and they were little trusted, particularly by those men who saw them as in unfavourable cahoots with ‘womankind’.  Their reputation for independence, however, also made them popular with the bourgeoisie of 19th century Europe; it is thought this significantly influenced their adoption as house-pets (in contrast to their previous, much wider role as – yep – rodent catchers).  These opposing roles – pets versus pest-control – have caused conflict ever since – I vividly recall waking in the middle of the night to the uneasy scenario of listening to my much-loved cat Jimmy chomping on some unfortunate rodent on my bedroom floor.

There remains today conflict of opinion when it comes to cats.  They have enormous (and slightly disturbing) popularity as memes and in viral videos, most of which have little correspondence with ‘normal’ cat behaviour (although Maru, admittedly, is hilarious).  Yet they are still not generally kept as pets in countries such as South Korea and, even where common, they are notably less popular than dogs – one survey by Stephen Kellert and colleagues found that 17.4% of the sample US population reported disliking cats (as opposed to 2.6% who disliked dogs).  Still, too, they engender hatred: there are several ‘I Hate Cats’ blogs and websites, not to mention a number of books such as the extremely popular 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (which is probably mostly tongue-in-cheek, but rather dark nonetheless).

African Wildcat. Photo Credit: Rute Martins European Wildcat. Photo Credit: Michael Gäbler Behaviourally, cats are talented predators and will hunt a wide range of prey, more varied than their (very close) cousins the European wildcats, though they tend to hunt smaller creatures than wildcats, suggesting they are less skillful hunters.  In addition, even feral domestic cats tend to live in the vicinity of human settlements and obtain more food from scavenging than do wildcats (though wildcats will also scavenge from humans on occasion).  Interestingly, there is continuous debate as to how different three of the small cat ‘species’ actually are, i.e. African and European wildcats and domestic cats.  They interbreed without apparent difficulty.  Their lack of significant genetic or behavioural distinctions (with the exception of hunting habits and human-association) suggests to some that cats have retained – as seems fitting to their independent nature – some distance from their human symbiotes, weaving in and out of various levels and types of association with humans.

Now we have a dilemma, though.  Sometimes, it seems, the last thing a species should do – unless it is human – is be successful.  Domestic cats now inflame debate because they do not fit with certain human ideals of morality, or understand the difference between an endangered robin and an ‘verminous’ rat.  Of course, it’s apparently not the pets that are to blame so much as the feral members of the domestic population, those who – for whatever reason – live outside of human control.

Cats are cats.  They have changed, a bit, as a result of their enduring association with humans, arguably the world’s most destructive species; and they have prospered and found pastures and prey new as a result.  I feel, though, that this new judgement of them is a consequence of our changing, of our inconsistencies, of our transformations and conflicts as to what we value, what is natural and what we should control.

I’m not suggesting that nothing should be done; but I would like to believe that we could approach this dilemma, this domestic with one of our oldest domesticates, in a sensible fashion.  That means not being horrified or outraged that cats kill birds, and lots of them, but accepting it as the way of things and moving forward towards a solution – or a compromise.  It means acknowledging that the biggest threat to endangered species in the States and the rest of the world is still widely understood not to be cats, but (mostly anthropogenic) habitat destruction.  Cats go where humans go; as we have seen, even feral cats remain near human settlements. These studies might provide clues as to how we might best tackle this problem – but please let’s do so with clear thinking and humanity, rather than attributing judgement and blame.
Cat & Mouse. Photo Credit: Lxowle

Let’s not turn cats back into ‘demons’ because we have changed our mind about what’s important; let us consider them as cats and make sure that, in equal part, we continue to consider ourselves.

My academic training means I can’t help but  reference my sources for some of the above information, however loosely!  Some are linked above; those that are not are shown below.  Academic Sources:

Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2000. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Podberscek, Anthony (2009). Good to pet and eat: the keeping and consuming of dogs and cats in South Korea. Journal of Social Issues 65(3): 615–632  /  Zeder, M. A. 2012. Pathways to Domestication. Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Ed. P. Gepts, T.R. Famula, R.L. Bettinger et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

News Articles (note the emotive titles):

“Killer cats: deadly pets murder nearly 4 billion birds a year”  /  “Cats are ruthless killers: should they be killed?” /  “The Feline Killer that Stalks the Streets” / “Cats Killing Billions of Animals in the US” / “‘Stone-cold serial killers’: Domestic cats slaughter billions upon billions of animals in US every year”

A Clarification

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
Charles Darwin

Yes, I have opened my very first blog post with a quote.  Cowardly, I know, but it seemed so fitting that I couldn’t resist.  After much thought (and ignoring the part of me that still thinks I should have gone for something more dramatic), I have decided to begin at the beginning, by clarifying the meaning and purpose of ‘Symbiology’: a term which I haven’t exactly made up, but probably may as well have – I for one had never heard of it until today.

Symbiology is the study (or in this case, exploration) of symbioses.  A symbiosis, as you may know, is a frequent or long term interaction between different living things, normally between different species.  As usual, there is a boring and mostly unnecessary academic dispute as to whether or not a ‘symbiotic’ relationship is one that benefits both parties, or whether the term refers to any kind of association (including, for example, the relationship between a parasite and its host).  I’m going to stick with the broader definition, because it better serves my purpose, which is to cast the net wide and look at all kinds of interactions between all different kinds of species.  That being said, I warn you now that there will, at least initially, be a focus on interactions between humans and other animals.  Why?  Well, because my primary area of interest (and to some extent, expertise) is anthrozoology, or the study of human-animal interactions.  You probably think I’m just making stuff up now, but anthrozoology is a bona fide academic field (we have a society and everything); although when I say field, it’s more like rangeland, with a roughly defined outline but very little in the way of fences.

That’s a plus-point, as far as I’m concerned, because (as you will no doubt learn) I am quite an indecisive person and, as an anthrozoologist, one can also be a zoologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, a geographer or just someone who’s interested in animals and/or humans (which covers pretty much everyone else, excluding sociopaths).  The boundaries are faint because, although you may not have thought about it before, anthrozoology influences almost everything; from everyday activities like keeping pets, eating meat and visiting zoos, through well-covered issues like conservation, hunting and medical research, to animal-assisted therapy and enlisting dolphins to help with fishing.

Despite this, I still thought anthrozoology was too limited a scope for this fledgling blog, as I would then feel bound to exclude posts that weren’t human-related in some way.   So, Symbiology is the exploration of how living things relate to other living things.  That should be broad enough…